18 December 2012

Solstice: a new digital edition

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:48 pm

Solstice Cover

My first novel, Solstice, is now available in a new digital edition from the Kindle store, with other platforms to follow. 

I started writing Solstice when I was eighteen and had just read Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate in my English literature class at university. It blew me away and, like a teenager, I decided that the best way to express my admiration was to write something similar. 

I set it in Adelaide, where I lived, following five characters over the 24 hours of the summer solstice—the longest day of the year. I guess I took the timeframe from Ulysses, Under Milk Wood and Aristotle’s unity of time—I was quite pretentious—and the day itself from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Because I didn’t want to copy Vikram Seth too exactly I decided to write it in Shakespearean (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG) instead of Pushkin (ABAB CCDD EFFE GG) sonnets, but I was persuaded by Seth’s arguments favouring tetrameter over pentameter. I had the early images of the day breaking, the city waking, the characters who found themselves in Adelaide on that day, and a kind of darting perspective that bound their stories together.

After almost a year of writing I had 600 of these sonnets, one for every two or three minutes of the day. I printed them all out on a dot-matrix printer, photocopied my manuscript at the SA Writers’ Centre and sent it in an Express Post satchel to the Australian/Vogel Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts by authors under 35. The winner that year was Helen Demidenko/Darville’s The Hand that Signed the Paper, but Solstice was shortlisted and was published the following year by Allen & Unwin.

My editors were quite indulgent with the manuscript, which I liked at the time, but they corrected the worst solecisms, suggested I might reassess my affection for semi-colons, and asked that I reduce the number of sonnets by about a hundred, so the book wouldn’t wear out its welcome. I secretly railed against the last request, and plotted to restore the lost sonnets in a full author’s cut one day.

Of course, now that the digital age has given me the means to release another edition, only a couple of the lost sonnets have been reinstated—and many of the published sonnets have been combined or deleted to improve the pacing and curtail some of the more pointless diversions. I’ve also slotted in a few of the new sonnets I wrote for the stage adaptation. This all nets out to 480 sonnets, exactly one for every three minutes of the day, which is kind of mathematically satisfying—and certainly would be for my somewhat nerdy protagonist.

When I wrote the first version I didn’t know as much about verse as I do now, and I wasn’t always vigilant enough in avoiding strained and repeated rhymes, as well as pairs that look like rhymes but aren’t really, because they’re too similar. Most of these infelicities have been corrected. I haven’t done anything to the story, or to any of the perhaps adolescent sentiments expressed in the book, because those are so intrinsically part of the original. I’ve also bloody-mindedly left intact the sonnet that prompted one Nobel-prize winner to murmur “dodgy rhymes, indeed” when he read it out at random. But in general this is the same story expressed better: I think it’s a more fitting companion to the later and more fully-realised Equinox—and might even be a better tribute to The Golden Gate.

The new edition of Solstice is now available for $2.99, €2.79 or £1.99 on the Kindle store (US UK CA DE FR ES IT JP BR). But it will be free on the 21st and 22nd of December 2012. So you’re very welcome to buy it now and send it up the charts, or wait a couple of days and bag it for free.

And a happy solstice to everyone!

17 December 2012

The Second Amendment is the bug in America

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:33 am

As a teenager I had a series of unpopular computers—an Amstrad instead of a Commodore 64, an Acorn when everyone else had an Amiga—that I taught myself to program from books and magazines. I was never very good at it: most of it was trial and error, and all of it was whatever ended up working; I’m sure I never wrote an elegant or even particularly imaginative line of code. But I still enjoyed it; or, rather, it captivated me—I couldn’t leave the program alone until it worked to some approximation. And I still remember the satisfaction that arose from something finally working, no matter how many hacks and kludges I’d shoehorned in there, no matter how ugly the code or how urgent the compiler warnings. 

When I came to study and then practise law, I found much that was familiar. Many legal documents—statutes and contracts in particular—have a lot in common with computer programs. They’re designed to achieve a particular outcome using specific forms of language. They use variables and constants, and the basic logical operators familiar to any coder: if, then, else, and, not. They employ functions and subroutines. With recent moves towards plain drafting, they’ve even started to look like programs, with nested indentations teasing out the impenetrable paragraphs of the old days. And great chunks of them are dedicated to error and exception handling, trying to ensure that if something goes wrong then the instrument itself can deal with the problem, instead of requiring a court to sort it out—surely the most expensive tech support around (or close).

Even so, sometimes a law or a contract will have a typo in it, or an undefined variable, or an unfortunate choice in language or even punctuation that means that the thing doesn’t work at all, or doesn’t do what you want or expect. That is: it has a bug.

It seems to me that the Second Amendment is the bug in America. 

Don’t get me wrong: I love America. It’s beautiful, it’s brilliant, it has a terrific sense of humour. But it’s a little bit crazy. This terror of government—you can kind of understand it; America’s had some bad luck in the past, you’d want to be careful. But this thing with the Second Amendment: this is batshit. It’s pathological. What other modern state could imagine such unrestricted access to such a range of weaponry? What other country would do so little in response to so many gun deaths? The fact that America stands so far apart from the world isn’t because Americans are parochial or narcissistic. It’s because America itself—as an idea, as an entity—is constituted by, well, its Constitution; and that Constitution has a pretty disastrous bug in its very foundation, in its framework.

There are many passages in the US Constitution that are beautifully written and wonderfully precise. Then there’s the Second Amendment. A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. But how does the first clause relate to the second? What do you mean by “the people”—what do you mean by “infringed”? There have been endless arguments in every direction, none of them altogether persuasive. They all dismiss too much of the language or the historical context. And it was never going to be any other way: there can be no satisfactory interpretation of such a frustrating piece of drafting. And I think it’s precisely this ambiguity that makes the arguments on both sides so heated, even hysterical: they have to make up in zeal what they lack in clear constitutional backing. And so one side goes on about fetishists and gun nuts, and the other grows alienated and paranoid. You have to wonder whether the framers ever really knew what they wanted; in any case, it would be hard to imagine a provision more perfectly crafted to drive a nation insane.

So the Constitution needs an urgent patch: it needs a referendum on the Second Amendment. Either replace it or repeal it; it can’t stay as it is. If the requisite majorities really want an illimitable individual right to bear any kind of weapon, let them say so unambiguously. If not, then treat it like Prohibition and repeal it already. That wouldn’t itself result in any fewer guns; but it might allow a more constructive debate about guns, perhaps based more on utility and empirical information—including the experience of other countries—and less on ideology and weird notions of what it means to be American. Modern America needs to decide how it is to deal with modern weaponry: the Second Amendment can do little to help. It’s a bug, not a feature. And for too long, the best advice from too many people has been to just try turning it off and then on again.

And no, I don’t live in America, and it’s none of my business. Except that we’re all Americans today, and it seems like we’re all Americans more and more often lately, and it’s hard not to say anything about that.

11 December 2012

Could I please speak to Kate please

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:41 am

FisherkingMy favourite film in the 1990s was probably Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, which stars Jeff Bridges as radio cult personality Jack Lucas, whose offhand incitement to class warfare prompts a lonely caller to open fire on a yuppie watering-hole, killing seven people and then himself. Jack is dancing around his penthouse, rehearsing a catchphrase for a new TV vehicle, when he sees the news on his three televisions. In Richard LaGravenese’s draft script, Jack is finally silenced by the unfolding report. In the filmed version, he manages a manifestly inadequate, and yet somehow perfect, “Fuck.” You can see in his face that he’s not just worried about his career or the public recriminations: he’s devastated because the world has just revealed to him that he’s an arsehole.

Like most people on this side of the world, I heard the news of Jacintha Saldanha’s death hours before Mel Greig and Mike Christian woke up on Saturday morning. I could only imagine that their reactions were something like Jack’s here. I have no doubt that they’re as shattered, gutted and heartbroken as they say. But their near-identical interviews with A Current Affair and Today Tonight are a little off-putting in their repeated insistence that (a) they weren’t responsible for putting the prank to air, and (b) nobody could have expected or foreseen the consequences. I believe that both these things are largely true, and also that the presenters were lawyered out of expressing anything that might be mistaken for actual remorse—as opposed to being “sorry that this has happened”—for the usual reasons. But it doesn’t hurt to admit that you were an arsehole. And if you ring up a maternity ward and ask to speak to a woman who’s having a difficult pregnancy and pretend to be her relatives by putting on silly voices—I’m sorry, but you’re kind of an arsehole. You don’t need to take all or most or even much of the blame for what ultimately happened, and you don’t deserve death threats or invitations to suicide. But you can’t expect much sympathy either, because you were kind of arseholes, and you might as well just own that and try not to be such arseholes next time. If you have to prank call someone, call someone who could conceivably be argued to deserve it. If things go wrong—or horribly right—maybe bail out of the call. Have a think about what you’re doing, and don’t just rely on “processes” you don’t understand to decide whether it’s a good idea or not. Little things.

In the old tellings, the Fisher King’s wound comes to blight the land around him, so that nothing can grow or thrive until he’s healed by a noble fool asking the right question. The actual question varies, but the most poetic one is simply: “What ails you?”. In Gilliam’s film, the land is blighted already—by rubbish and drunks, violent preppies, heartless yuppies, corporate indifference and empty cults. And Jack is wounded long before the loner opens fire and ruins his life—he just doesn’t know it yet. 

It’s hard to imagine a more blasted land than the one now occupied by 2DayFM and its barrel-scraping competitors. I don’t know who the afflicted king might be in this scenario—I have a horrible feeling it’s Kyle Sandilands, though Southern Cross Austereo chairman Max “The Axe” Moore-Wilton makes an intriguing candidate. But Mel and MC might suggest that their cancelled Hot 30 Countdown be replaced by a Noble Fool segment where they just call people up and ask what ails them, and how they can help. They can’t be blamed for the state of commercial radio, but they might be inspired to help fix it. Or maybe that’s just in stories.